If you think school lunch has a stigma, consider school breakfast
Unlike lunch, when all students are eating at the same time no matter if they buy food from the cafeteria or bring from home, breakfast at school is optional, especially for students whose parents can afford to make or buy breakfast before the bell rings.
But for many of the students who are on the free/reduced-price lunch program, that school breakfast might be their only option for a meal in the morning.
As school-age children grow older, they start to figure out this disparity. Some of them are compassionate about it. Others, not so much.
First, let’s revisit my annual argument on behalf of school lunches: Ever since my own kids started attending public school, I decided they were going to eat the hot lunch served in the cafeteria.
The lunch that the school provides is much healthier and more substantial than what I’d make, and not having to make their lunch at night or in the morning gives us an extra 15 minutes of time together every single day to read books or bond over “Shark Tank” at night or, in the mornings, talk about our day ahead or sneak in a little extra sleep.
But those are selfish reasons I want them to eat the school lunch.
Far more important is this: I firmly believe that eating what the school provides is a unifying and equalizing force, and we’d be better off as a community if more students ate it. My sons aren’t showing off new lunch boxes or drinking Capri Suns or eating fancy processed foods, like Lunchables or Pirate’s Booty, that would further emphasize their privilege as white, middle-class students in the ethnically diverse and majority low-income school they attend.
They are choosing from the same options as their peers, and it becomes something that they bond over as opposed to something that might divide them into the haves and have nots.
So you can imagine my delight to find out that this year, their elementary school is one of 22 in Austin that is now serving breakfast to all students, every day, in the classroom at the start of the school day. This Breakfast in the Classroom program was approved in 2014 when the Texas Legislature approved Universal Breakfast in schools that have 80 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.
Schools can apply for grants to help cover the costs, and there’s a whole website — breakfastintheclassroom.org — where you can find out more about the program and find out how to advocate for its implementation at your child’s school.
Last week, I popped by my oldest son Julian’s classroom to see how this breakfast in the classroom worked. Instead of having to show up early to get breakfast in the cafeteria, students can arrive closer to the official start time of school and simply eat at their desk as they start to warm up for a day of learning.
On that day, Julian and his classmates got to choose from sausage biscuit sandwiches and a few kinds of cereal, and milk or juice to go with it. Every student was chowing down when I walked in, and let me tell you, they were stoked.
Even though my kids eat the school lunch, they’d never had the school breakfast because we’d always just eaten at home to avoid having to leave so early. In order to eat in the cafeteria, students had to arrive at least 20 minutes earlier than those who weren’t eating breakfast at school. And now, because we aren’t having to eat before we leave, the kids and I are able to get an extra 10 minutes of sleep.
Across the district, officials are seeing fewer tardies and absences in the schools with Breakfast in the Classroom and even fewer nurse visits and discipline interruptions, according to Austin school district food services director Anneliese Tanner.
My son’s teacher seemed as excited as the students to be able to watch them fill their bellies so they could fill their minds, without any stigma of the haves and have nots because every student was participating.
That is a powerful shift that I don’t imagine we’ll ever see at the lunch hour but one that I wish every student (and their sleep-deprived parents) could enjoy.
Have you had an experience with Breakfast in the Classroom/Universal Breakfast? What do you think about it? Should it be expanded beyond Title I schools? What other ways can we destigmatize school food?